We all know that writers and directors—even editors!—tend to suck up a lot of the credit when it comes to identifying the key creative voice behind any particular piece of narrative filmmaking. But for (nerdy) metaphor’s sake, let’s imagine that each individual film project is like a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Sure: each warlock, ranger or paladin may have their own specific skillset and set of tasks to perform. But there’s typically only one all-powerful Dungeon Master holding everything together who sees the entire board and has a disproportionate ability to shape the larger collaboration and experience into something meaningful.
And seeing as the players’ manual definition of the DM is “the organizer and participant in charge of creating the details and challenges of an adventure while maintaining a realistic continuity of the game,” what better analogue in the film world is there, really, other than the Creative Producer? Tasked not merely with making a director’s harebrained ideas a practical reality, but also with managing a project’s progression and creating the framework to support it.
But while producers spend all of their time on set supporting other creatives—and most every waking moment away from it—too rarely do the producers themselves receive proper support to develop their professional skills and strategically career-build. Enter the Producing Lab.
“At Film Independent, we recognize the vital role creative producers play in independent film—as well as the enormous challenges they face,” says Jennifer Kushner, Film Independent’s Director of Artist Development. “Our Lab provides much-needed support to help empower the next generation of indie producers.”
Past Film Independent Producing Lab projects have included Selah and the Spades, a 2019 Sundance Film Festival (Lauren McBride, producer), Chloé Zhao’s debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Angela C. Lee, producer) and the Film Independent Spirit Award nominated Manos Sucias (Elena Greenlee and Márcia Mayer, producers), among others.
This year’s mentors and guest speakers include Rebecca Green (It Follows and founder of Dear Producer), Laura Kim (Participant Media), Amanda Marshall (Swiss Army Man), Dani Melia (The Farewell), Sheila Hanahan Taylor (Final Destination) and Tristen Tuckfield (30 West). This year’s Industry Advisors include Lauren Craniotes (Gersh), Greta Fuentes (MACRO), Lauren Mann (Swiss Army Man), Valerie Stadler (Big Swing Productions) and Solome Williams (Bron Studios.)
This year’s Producing Lab projects are as wide-ranging—thematically, tonally and aesthetically—as the colorful careers of the Fellows themselves. They are:
- Title: Bolichicos
- Producer: Diego Najera
- Logline: In 2006 Venezuela, a privileged 20-year-old recruits the maid’s straitlaced son to carry out a currency exchange scam that exploits the country’s poorest citizens, but inadvertently ends up turning brother against brother.
- Title: Costa Brava, Lebanon
- Producer: Myriam Sassine
- Logline: The Badri family lives in the Lebanese mountains away from the country’s pollution, until the government decides to build a landfill right outside their house.
- Title: Farewell Amor
- Producer: Huriyyah Muhammad
- Logline: After 17 years apart, Angolan immigrant Walter is joined in the U.S. by his wife and teenage daughter. Now absolute strangers sharing a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, they struggle to overcome the emotional distance between them, relying on the muscle memory of dance to rediscover one another.
- Title: The Inspection
- Producers: Chester Gordon and Valerie Steinberg
- Logline: In the age of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” homeless youth Ellis French joins the Marine Corps in a last-ditch attempt to change his life, but must conceal his attraction for his drill instructor in order to survive boot camp.
- Title: I Was a Simple Man
- Producer: Sarah S. Kim
- Logline: The ghosts of the past haunt the countryside in this tale of a Hawaii family facing the imminent death of their eldest.
- Title: Malpelo
- Producer: Camila Zavala
- Logline: Mia, a solitary free diver, is recruited by someone from her past to take the treacherous journey to Malpelo—a remote Colombian island—in order to investigate the troubling disappearance of hammerhead sharks. To do so, she will have to reconcile with her past and navigate the dangerous waters of the Pacific Ocean, trapped on a boat with an all-male crew. They prove to be just as slippery as the predators she’s studying.
So! Now that we know what films our producers will be sending approximately one million billion emails on behalf of over the next few years, let’s meet the Fellows themselves:
Diego Najera (producer, Bolichicos)
Diego Najera is a Mexican producer with experience in development, finance and curation. His award-winning projects have screened at Berlinale, SXSW, FICG, FICViña, Miami FF and on HBO. With an MFA from USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program, Diego is an International Artist Fellow (USC), Film Independent Project Involve Fellow and a PGA Debra Hill Fellow (PGA). He worked as Producer and Programmer for the Guadalajara Film Festival and co-founded the Latin Tracking Board to advance Latinx executives in the industry. Diego works at AG Capital and is producing Bolichicos, by Juan Avella—winner of the TFI Sloan Grant from the Tribeca Film Institute and the Sloan Foundation.
Myriam Sassine (producer, Costa Brava, Lebanon)
Myriam Sassine majored in audiovisual studies and received a MA in cinema research. In 2010 she joined Abbout Productions to produce several features and documentaries—including Tramontane by Vatche Boulghourjian (Cannes Critic’s Week, 2016), All This Victory by Ahmad Ghossein (Venice Critic’s Week, 2019), 1982 by Oualid Mouaness (TIFF, 2019), Panoptic by Rana Eid (Locarno, 2017) and Amal by Mohamed Siam (Idfa, 2017.) Since 2016 Myriam has been the COO of Schortcut Films, dedicated to co-producing international films, as well as the Executive Director of Maskoon Fantastic Film Festival, which she co-founded.
Huriyyah Muhammad (producer, Farewell Amor)
Huriyyah Muhammad is a writer, director and producer whose projects have been invited to the Sundance Film Institute, Tribeca Film Institute, Austin Film Festival, New Voices in Black Cinema, IFP Film Week, African Film Festival and the American Black Film Festival. She is a 2018 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow, as well as the co-founder of Black TV & Film Collective—a 1,300-member nonprofit dedicated to developing and supporting emerging artists. Muhammad holds a BS in Computer Science from Spelman College and an MBA from NYU.
Chester Gordon (producer, The Inspection)
Producer/costume designer Chester Algernal Gordon was the first male African-American costume designer to compete at the Cannes Film Festival, for his work on Danielle Lessovitz’s Port Authority, produced by Martin Scorsese. Gordon was also a winner of the Tribeca Film Institute’s 2019 TFI All Access Grant, and his films have played in 200+ festivals—including Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, BFI, Outfest and the American Black Film Festival. He is also a producer for the GLAAD-nominated documentary TV series My House, currently airing on Viceland.
Valerie Steinberg (producer, The Inspection)
Valerie Steinberg graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Chinese. She has produced 14 short films, including: Hair Wolf (dir. Mariama Diallo, Sundance Jury Award winner, streaming on HBO); Fry Day (dir. Laura Moss; SXSW, Tribeca Award winner); Everybody Dies! (dir. Nuotama Bodomo, SXSW, part of HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness); Metronome (In Time) (dir. Scott Lochmus, Tribeca); Bug Bite (dir. Emily Ann Hoffman) and The 8th Year of the Emergency (dir. Maureen Towey). With Chester Algernal Gordon, she participated in the 2019 Tribeca All Access program with Elegance Bratton’s film The Inspection.
Sarah S. Kim (producer, I Was a Simple Man)
Sarah S. Kim is a creative producer based in New York. She produced the critically acclaimed film August at Akiko’s, directed by Christopher Makoto Yogi, which premiered at Rotterdam and released by Factory25. She’s currently in post on I Was a Simple Man, which has been supported by the Sundance Labs and Sundance Catalyst, Film Independent, IFP and the Jerome Foundation. She’s produced several international co-productions including a North Korean film called The Other Side of the Mountain, which is in the National Korean Film Archive. She also cofounded the distribution initiative Sentient Art Film.
Camila Zavala (producer, Malpelo)
Camila Zavala is a Peruvian writer and producer based in Los Angeles with an MFA from Columbia University. Camila’s work spans fiction, TV, branded content and theatre. As a producer, she has been honored to win several awards and has been selected to screen at festivals, such as the Tribeca Film Festival, Palm Springs International Shortfest and Telluride Film Festival. Her last film, The Catch, which she wrote and produced, received the Katherina Otto-Bernstein Production Grant and the Bertha Tamayo Grant during the production stage, and was awarded the Richard Brick Fund for special distinction in Producing.
Additionally, Camilia Zavala will receive a $30,000 Sloan Producers Grant to further develop her Producing Lab project, Malpelo. This grant is awarded to projects exploring scientific or technological themes or characters in engaging and innovative ways. “I’m sincerely grateful to have the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s support,” said Zavala, whose film addresses “global issues such as the illegal wildlife trade and poaching,” adding: “Thanks to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we will be able to portray this vital work with precision.”
Also, Lebanese filmmaker Myriam Sassine will receive a Global Media Makers Fellowship making her travel and participation in the Lab possible. Global Media Makers is an exchange program sponsored through a partnership between Film Independent and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The 2019 Producing Lab is supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Additional funding is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
To learn more about the Screenwriting Lab and additional Film Independent Artist Development programs and grants, click here.
Film Independent Artist Development programs promote unique independent voices by helping filmmakers create and advance new work. To learn how to become a Member of Film Independent, click here.